Today’s report from UCAS highlights the stratospheric rise of unconditional (U) offers on the university admissions scene.  Since 2013, when the University of Birmingham made the first controversial move, the practice of confirming places for students before they get their exam results has grown exponentially.  According to UCAS, 2018 saw some 68,000 unconditional offers being made, up from less than 3,000 in 2013.  Nearly a quarter of applicants now get at least one U offer.

An earlier report by UCAS in 2016 showed that students with U offers had a small but measurable drop in expected performance at A-Level.  No doubt the promised UCAS report later this year will provide further evidence.

Undoubtedly, schools and parents thoroughly dislike the practice because it skews students’ decisions and takes the pressure off students to study hard up to the line to get the best grades possible. As Laura McInerney points out, it also undermines the concept of preparing and qualifying for higher education.

In the context of rising worry about young people’s mental health, universities defend the practice as a way to relieve exam stress.  They point out that the performance of pupils at A-Level is squarely the responsibility of schools, not universities, and some put in place scholarships to incentivise their applicants to deliver on their predicted grades in spite of the U offer. Importantly, they also point to the legally enshrined autonomy of universities to set their own admissions criteria.

Some refer to the practices of an earlier era when two E grades at A-Level was a standard offer for many universities, including for Oxford and Cambridge (albeit when there was an additional Oxbridge entrance exam). But replacing U offers with very low grade offers would send a much worse message because it would set a low target rather than removing the condition while keeping a firm expectation of high grade achievement.

Government policy is to introduce a market in higher education and to drive competition and choice, so it is not surprising that universities feel that they are being criticised for responding to the market effects that the per-student funding regime and the lifting of student quotas has driven.  But the Office for Students is clear that their duty to drive competition is ‘where that competition is in the interests of students’.  The key paragraphs from the Office for Students’ Regulatory Framework are set out below.

Universities do have some reasonable arguments for making unconditional offers, including to secure financial sustainability for their institutions and their students. But the stark reality it that the tide of public opinion is against the practice. With the Minister for Universities, Sam Gyimah, calling it ‘completely irresponsible’ to students and an unhelpful conflation of the issue with separate calls for a move to a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system, the higher education sector might conclude that it has more important battles to fight.

After a stream of criticism about Vice-Chancellors’ pay, grade inflation, free speech and value for money, the right thing for the sector to do now is quietly to drop the practice of unconditional offers and remove yet another reputational stick to get beaten with. Many in the sector that I have spoken to over the years privately loathe the practice and admit to caving in to competitive and peer pressure when they have adopted it.  A gentlefolks’ agreement among Vice-Chancellors to abandon unconditional offers should do the trick.